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Will John McCain Avoid Running a "Tough-On-Crime" Campaign?

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The prevailing wisdom among reformers has been that Obama's good positions on medical marijuana, needle exchange, and sentencing reform would draw fire from the McCain campaign. Bogus "soft-on-crime" attacks against democrats have been a staple of past republican presidential campaigns, and Obama's already been smeared on this issue. But McCain himself has thus far steered clear of that path.

Now, The Washington Post points to some recent McCain comments that suggest a more reasoned approach to the crime issue than many have been anticipating:
PHILADELPHIA -- The question for Sen. John McCain at a town hall meeting here was one of those softballs that Republicans historically use to demonstrate their law-and-order toughness: What are you going to do about teen gangs?

But the Republican presidential nominee did not talk the way many Republican candidates do about the need for a crackdown on gangs, or tougher prison sentences or a need to enforce gun laws. (The answer might have been different had former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani been the nominee. The former mayor repeatedly talked about crackdowns on crime.)

Instead, McCain repeated his belief that gang members "need mentors. I think they need role models" and related a story about a program run by a Baptist college in Arkansas. "We've go to have mentors."

"We've also got to give them an opportunity and a path and away out," he added. "Some of these gangs have now become almost international ... incarceration has sometimes made them worse criminals when they get out than they are when they went in."

Given the opportunity to pounce atop the law & order podium, McCain instead sounds more thoughtful, endorsing education and even acknowledging the unintended consequences of massive incarceration. Other than a passing reference to stopping drugs at our border, all of this is pretty easy to swallow.

We've heard disappointing statements from McCain on medical marijuana and the drug war in general, but none of that precludes the senator from recognizing the need for alternatives to incarceration. It's an issue that's generating increased public awareness and could become an asset to Obama if McCain appears indifferent. Needless to say, a bipartisan consensus on reducing incarceration would be a powerful step forward, even if neither candidate is prepared to support the drug policy overhaul that's necessary to achieve it.

Unfortunately, painful experience has taught us not to expect a presidential campaign free of mindless tough-guy crime rhetoric and it's way too soon to take comfort in what we've seen so far. Even if McCain aims to stay out of the fray, we can expect attacks on Obama's pro-reform positions to intensify as the contest heats up. As always, what matters won't be those positions in and of themselves, but whether Obama is prepared to defend them with confidence and vigor.

Update: Tom Angell suggests that it's a mistake to even concede the term "tough-on-crime" to those who think hurling human beings behind bars at alarming rates will make us safer. He's right that bad policies create new crimes, cause more of the old ones, and distract police from what should be their primary public safety priorities. The drug war isn't tough, it's clumsy and barbaric.

(This blog post was published by's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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All of our acknowledgment and support

for alternative candidates, I believe, has caused this moderation by McCain. So too with Obama.

This seeming moderation by McCain is our success at alternative politics.

It will be our continued support for alternative candidates that will force these major candidates to look more objectively at the policies supported by the alternative candidates if McCain and Obama want to "win" those independent and third party votes. This is why support for alternative candidates is so important. It forces the major politicians to educate themselves and become sensitive to the issues that are important to the voters who support the alternative candidates and parties. The one issue common to all of the significant third party and independent groups is opposition to the war on drugs.

We are winning this thing and we need to redouble our efforts in this election.

Confront the candidates for all state and federal elective office with critical questions about the drug war policy. Especially presidential candidates.

Stand up and support our political allies such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors that last year passed a resolution asserting the the war on drugs is failed.

"NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the United States Conference of Mayors believes the war on drugs has failed and calls for a New Bottom Line in U.S. drug policy..."

Their annual conference is in Miami in July. Anyone who can get there and wave a support sign in front of their hotel would be helping reaffirm that the mayors are not alone in their resolve.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors is one of the largest groups of local ELECTED executives in the nation. It is they who much mop up the blood in the streets of our cities and repair the damage done to urban America by the Jim Crow mass incarceration system.

Persecution doesn't equal Regulation

Arresting individuals does not arrest the market or its continuous profit stream.

All that criminalization does

is make it more likely that an American, once criminalized, will be more dependent on the $ 141-billion annual retail drug trade for their economic sustenance. This is why the drug market continues to grow. An arrest is like a college degree and character reference on a resume for drug dealing.

Every time they arrest someone they are increasing the sales force of dealers who are happy to sell drugs to children. It is a self-perpetuating program of authoritarian anarchy.

And so it goes.......

Obama is a hypocrite

Anyone expecting Obama to be any different than the run-of-the-mill drug warrior politician should read transcripts from his May 23 speech in Miami to Cuban Americans. His remarks regarding drug policies differ very little, if at all, from those of the most dedicated drug warrior.

Had Obama been caught doing drugs back in Chicago, does anyone really believe he'd be standing where he is today? By supporting current drug policies Obama is essentially saying "tough shit - you're on your own" to all youth, especially all future Obamas inside the black community. He's not so much "turning the page" for them as merely "turning his back" on them.

He should be ashamed - and so should anyone voting for him come November, especially those favoring drug policy reform. There is only one presidential candidate willing to risk his political future (and discredit his past) by vowing to end drug prohibition: Bob Barr.

If there was ever a time to "waste" your vote, it's now. Vote Libertarian. Vote Bob Barr.

I'll vote for the most opportunity to get things done.

Obama supports states rights to medical marijuana. McCain doesn't even believe it is legitimate medicine. The choice is clear for me. I may not get everything I want with Obama, but I believe there's a lot less to work with if McCain gets elected.

McCain is even less progressive on the issue than George Bush before getting elected in 2000.

"Although aides said circa October 1999 Mr. Bush does not support legalizing marijuana for medical use, he was quoted in the Dallas Morning News on 10-20-99 as supporting states' rights to decide whether to allow medical use of marijuana: "I believe each state can choose that decision [regarding medical marijuana] as they so choose." Since his election as President, more individuals and clinics have been arrested or sanctioned than any time prior. (10/99)"

eeny, meeny, miny, mo...

The "opportunity" you see with Obama is really no different than the one hoped for after Bill Clinton made his sop to the MTV crowd - and we know how that worked out: more people were arrested for simple possession of marijuana during his presidency than any other.

So good luck with Barack Obama.

Realistic vs. Ideology

I never heard Bill Clinton take any stance in 1992. Medical marijuana wasn't legal in any state until 1996.

The fact of the matter is that either McCain or Obama will get elected. Which will be more sympathetic to drug policy reform?

If McCain comes out and says we need to take a new direction in the War on Drugs and give states back their right to regulate these criminal-controlled markets, I'll be the first one in line to vote for him.


[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.Canada This is what I've been saying for years myself.I never thought I'd agree on anything with McCain but he's got this one dead right.

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